Uros Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Uros islands are floating reed islands found on Lake Titicaca, the largest fresh water lake in South America, situated between Peru and Bolivia. At 3800 metres above sea level Lake Titicaca is considered to be the highest navigable lake in the world. In the local Quechua language “titicaca” means “Mount Puma” or “grey puma”.
The floating Uros islands were originally created in pre-Colombian times when the small Uros tribe needed to find a solution for being attacked by various other tribes. This happened at a time when constant migration of new groups to Lake Titicaca area where the Uru were living, threatened their peaceful lifestyles.
The islands were (and are) constructed with many layers of totora, a type of reed which grows abundantly in the shallow parts of the lake. In the middle of the ice cold Lake Titicaca the Uros people were safe from being bothered by troublemakers and they established a lifestyle of using reeds for all their construction needs (islands, homes and boats) and they started living from the animals and plants found in and on the lake. Reeds were also consumed as a type of food, although due to present day contamination (in the lake) the reeds cannot be safely eaten any more.
Today many of the floating islands have solar power, which has modernised their lifestyles. Urus people can now cook without having to make fire, reducing the accompanying hazards. The islanders can also charge their cell phones and even watch television and run small refrigerators.
There are presently around 92 floating Uros islands on Lake Titicaca. Uros people on most of the islands continue to live traditionally for the most part. On some islands subsistence living and living strictly from the lake has given way to making a living from tourism.
New layers of reeds are added every two or three months due to the reeds at the bottom rotting away quite quickly. When walking on the reeds it feels like walking on a large sponge and one has to step carefully to avoid stepping right through the reeds in some parts.
Reed arches are popular on the islands and reflect the stone arches which can be found on the main islands on Lake Titicaca. On some islands the locals play soccer matches – which they always win when visitors take part – because they are so used to stepping on “unstable ground”. Arches are also perfect goal posts.
A variety of colourful and durable handmade arts and crafts are on sale by Uros islanders to help them sustain their lifestyles and to import goods from the mainland.
Most of the islands have lookout towers and even today the islanders are always ready, should some kind of threat arise. They can then move away from the trouble by cutting their anchors (and in some cases sawing the island in half – they have large saws for this purpose) and arrange for motor boats to quickly tow them away.
Every island has its own reed boat(s) so the islanders can visit each other. When there are large community events such as weddings, several islands are tied together, creating one big temporary island space where festivities can take place.
When visitors spend time on an Uros island the president of the island would often invite visitors to join him for a trip around the waterways or to a neighbouring island.
Some of the Uros islanders have pets, including dogs and cats.
Uros people are hospitable and welcoming and proud of their reed island heritage and lifestyles. Their friendly enthusiasm in showing guests around adds to the experience.
Due to the unique lifestyles of the Uros islanders who for the most part still live their lives like they did centuries ago, visiting Uros is a unique and satisfying experience even if it has become quite a popular tourist attraction on Lake Titicaca.
Uros islands are accessible by excursion boat from the port in Puno. Visiting them is usually part of a two day excursion including an overnight home-stay, either on Isla Amantani or Isla Taquile, or on one of the Uros islands.
Visiting Peru – January 2016
Photography by Jean-Jacques M.
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